A harsh penalty

In the 78th minute of last Saturday’s game at Brightlingsea Regent with the score at 0-0 Callum Overton weaved his way into the area near the touchline. His way was blocked by Regent’s Aaron Condon and as the Rooks forward looked to go around him, Condon fell and perhaps to cushion his fall, put both hands out. Those hands landed firmly on the ball, stopping it rolling into the path of Callum.

Unbelievably, the two people in the stadium who didn’t see the offence were the two that mattered – the referee and his far side assistant. However, if you take a step back and put the rules to the side for a minute, it is hard to justify how an offence in that position actually warrants a penalty kick.

Whilst the handball occurred in the penalty area, it was in a relatively harmless position. Callum couldn’t have realistically scored from that position especially as another defender blocked his way to the goal. So why should that be considered a worse offence than one a few minutes earlier which resulted in a defendable free-kick when Dayshonne Golding was pole-axed on the edge of the penalty area almost dead centre?

Perhaps it is time we took a look at the rules around a penalty kick? At a time when the IFAB are keen to tinker with the rules, how long before the spot kick as we know it changes? Whilst it is sure to cause controversy, perhaps it is for the best.

Before we consider the ramifications, let’s go back 130 years when the idea created to goalkeeper and businessman William McCrum was presented by the Irish Football Association to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) 1890 Meeting. After a year of debate, the rule changes came into play at the start of the 1891/92 season.

However, the rules pertaining to the humble spot kick agreed by IFAB were very different to what we know today.

  • It was awarded for an offence committed within 12 yards of the goal-line (the penalty area not introduced until 1902).
  • It could be taken from any point along a line 12 yards from the goal-line.
  • It was awarded only after an appeal made by the attacking team to the referee.
  • There was no restriction on dribbling with the ball.
  • The ball could be kicked in any direction.
  • The goal-keeper was allowed to advance up to 6 yards from the goal-line.

The world’s first penalty kick was awarded to Airdrieonians in 1891 whilst the first penalty kick awarded in England was to Wolverhampton Wanderers in September 1891 in their league match against Accrington Stanley.

The rules as we know them today came into play from 1902 with the creation of the 18-yard box and whilst there has been changes to almost every one of the original rules, the basics have remained the same for over 115 years – an offence committed anywhere in the 18-yard box results in a penalty kick from 12-yards out.

But is now the time to rethink the rules? At their meeting in Aberdeen earlier In March, IFAB discussed the idea of making any follow-ups to penalties saved by the goal keeper or that strike the frame of the goal “illegal”. It is likely that in the next few years this will become entrenched in the rules of the game but perhaps one change could be under discussed in the next few years is that the penalty area is reduced from 18 to 12 yards, and made into a semi-circle similar to the hockey penalty area. Any offence committed in the area will result in a spot kick, taken from the point on the curve closest to the offence. The more central the offence, the better the angle the penalty taker has.

It may be a controversial change to one of the most recognisable aspects of the game but football needs to adapt. If we would have been awarded that penalty last Saturday we of course wouldn’t have complained, although based on our penalty record this year there’s no guarantee we would have scored it! But if we would have scored the only goal of the game, would it have been a just reward for an offence that took place in an area of the pitch where there was virtually no chance of a goal? The football fan says no, the Rooks fan says yes!

At last, the wait is over…

Apart from my trip to the dark side a few weeks ago to watch the New York Red Bulls, my season ended over two months ago.  Last season I managed to shoe-horn in 104 games in 14 countries between 1 July and 7 May.  Nine weeks is a lifetime in football.  But finally we had football back in our weekends.  Our first game of the season ticked so many boxes.  Lewes game; new ground and the chance to win our first bit of silverware for five years.  Bring on the Supporters Direct Shield!

Supporters Direct do a fantastic job across all levels of football.  Many fans of the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City or Chelsea will probably never have heard of them.  But they work tirelessly in helping clubs rebuild and create sustainable business models for the future.  They have focused their efforts on clubs who have gone through financial “trauma” but their assistance is available to everyone and to celebrate their work each year they hold a conference where clubs, fans, members, owners and just about anyone who cares about the game attends.  Last year it was in Chester and had an address from William Gaillard, UEFA’s Director of Communications no less at the conference.  This year it was the turn of London to host the show. Continue reading

Tonka Toy

In 1979 West Ham United shocked the footballing world by signing Scottish teenager Ray Stewart from Dundee United.  At the time there was no Sky Sports, no Internet and fortunately no TalkSport.  There wasn’t even Radio 5 to carry this breaking news.  It was the Evening Standard in those days, with the reporters being given the tip off for a breaking story and then filing it before the Fleet Street elite could get their hands on the story.

So on a wet day in early September nineteen year old Stewart stepped off the train, on one of his first ever trips south of the border.  The transfer fee was huge – £430,000.  To put it into context the record transfer fee in English football was just £500,000 eight months previously.  Whilst Trevor Francis had become the first ever million pound player in February 1979, only a handful of transfers had been for more than £400,000.  And here was the relatively conservative West Ham United splashing out a ridiculous sum on a teenager who had played less than 50 games in the Scottish Premier League.

Stewart would go on to make over 430 appearances over 11 years for the Hammers, and was the cornerstone of the most successful period in the club’s history.  But the reason why he will always be a legend for the East Enders was his crashing left foot that led to 84 goals for the club and one of the most famous penalty styles in football which has been often copied but rarely been as deadly.

Just 24 hours after he signed for the club he watched his new team from the bench in his Burtons suit, shirt and tie lose 2-0 to Watford at Vicarage Road.  He was on the coach back up north to Barnsley for the League Cup 2nd round 2nd Leg game  three days later, and four weeks later in the league game at Upton Park versus Burnley he scored his first penalty in a style that left most of the 18,327 fans starring in disbelief.  He picked the ball up, carefully placed it down, with the valve pointing goalwards, turned, took a dozen steps back in a straight line.  He then focused purely on the ball and where he was going to hit it.  None of this “looking the keeper in the eye” business.  He ran and struck the centre of the ball with all of the power in his body, both feet off the floor in a type of skip as he followed through.

The fans went mad for his approach.  In that first season he scored an amazing fourteen goals, making him the club’s second top scorer, and averaging nearly a goal every three games.  He was a full back.  Most were penalties, some literally game changing.

On the 8th March 1980 West Ham hosted First Division Aston Villa in the FA Cup quarter finals.  This was Ron Saunders Villa who a year later would go on to win the title.  They arrived in East London with a reputation for tough defending and fast counter attacking play with the exciting Tony Morley on the wing, and Gary Shaw up front.

The game was goal less, heading towards a replay at Villa Park when West Ham got a corner.  The ball was delivered in the box and an arm went up in the air.  It was hard to see if it was Alvin Martin or Ken McNaught’s but the referee deemed it the Villa man and pointed to the spot.  One kick separated West Ham from the semi-finals and Stewart stepped up, showing no sign of nerves and smashed the ball home.

He blotted his copybook in the Semi-Final at Villa Park against Everton though, showing the rash side of his play when he was sent off in the first half for fighting with Brian Kidd.  Fortunately he served his suspension long before the final against Arsenal where he won his first honour as a player.  In fact, Stewart has the unique distinction of being the only West Ham player to win the FA Cup who wasn’t English. That is quite an amazing stat when you look at football today.  Three FA Cup finals spanning sixteen years, with thirty one players used, and thirty were English.

In 1980/81 he was an integral part of the record breaking West Ham side that waltzed to the Second Division Title as well as reaching the European Cup Winners Cup Quarter Finals.  He scored nine goals in sixty appearances, only missing one game all season. He was a fans favourite and in the days when the word “Marketing” was as foreign to football clubs as a Bosman or Sepp Blatter and the club often rolled him out to shamelessly promote products that fans lapped up.

If there was any ever doubt about his composure it came on the 14th March 1981.  The venue – Wembley Stadium.  The Twin Towers.  West Ham United, from the second tier of English football against the mighty Liverpool, League Champions, who would go in to win the European Cup later in the year. After ninety minutes the game was goal less.  Both teams had chances, but a betting man would have put his house on Liverpool to triumph.  In extra time the first moment of controversy.  With just two minutes remaining a corner is cleared by Phil Parkes.  In the process Sammy Lee is knocked to the floor.  The ball falls to Alan Kennedy and the full back finds the back of the net from distance.  BUT Lee is lying in the penalty area, obstructing Parkes view.

However, the referee is Clive Thomas.  A man who controversy follows around and he deems that Lee is not interfering with play.  West Ham take heart from the injustice and launch one last attack.  A corner is sent in and Alvin Martin rises the highest and sends an unstoppable header into the top corner of the net.  A hand rises and stops the ball but not that of Liverpool keeper Ray Clemence.  It is Terry McDermott, and try as he might, Thomas cannot do anything but award West Ham a penalty (he does however fail to send off McDermott).  The clock has now stopped at 120 minutes and one man stands between Liverpool winning the cup.  Ray Stewart.  Twenty one year old Ray Stewart.  The hopes of thousands of fans on his shoulders.  He steps up but instead of smashing it home he calmly slots the ball down the middle of the net.  West Ham live to fight another day, losing the replay some three weeks later at Villa Park.

The following season in the top division Stewart plays every game, scoring thirteen times, following it up with double figures in the next few years, maturing and being rewarded with ten international caps.  In 1985/86 he played in possibly the greatest West Ham side, the one that ran Liverpool and Everton until the last Saturday of the season for the title and claiming an amazing 84 points.  Stewart’s contribution came into its own in the unbelievable run in in March and April which saw West Ham have to play seventeen league games in just fifty six days – a game almost every three days.

He scored a goal (not a penalty) in the amazing 8-1 win versus Newcastle United, and actually gave the ball to Alvin Martin when the Hammers were awarded a penalty so he could complete his hatrick.  A week later his late penalty sees off Manchester City and then just two days later(!) in front of a season best 31,121 West Ham come from behind to beat Ipswich Town with Stewart again netting a high pressure late penalty winner to take the Hammers to second in the table.

His last season at the club was in 1990/91.  With young Steve Potts and Julian Dicks breaking through into the team he found his chances limited, deciding to move on to St Johnstone after 345 games and 62 goals for the Hammers.  Ironically Dicks modelled his penalty style on Stewart and himself went on to score 50 goals in 260 games for the Hammers – a strike rate almost comparable with the master, Ray Stewart.

When I was in the playground as a young teenager all I wanted to be was Ray Stewart.  When it came to taking penalties with the tennis ball, the Stewart approach used to ensure the keeper would be quaking in their boots at the thought of that small ball thundering towards their face.  For that reason alone, we salute you Ray, you are a true legend of the game.

Photos with thanks to Steve Bacon and Newham Recorder from West Ham United programme archives.

The penalty shoot out lottery

How to take a decent penalty part 1

I have followed England in the last six major tournaments we have played in stretching back to the European Championships held here on home soil in 1996.  During that time we have failed to qualify once – in 2008 under McClown, but in the other six tournaments we have exited on penalties on all bar one occasion.  There are also those who would add that having a goalkeeper with a pony tail in the 2002 World Cup was a penalty in itself as well.

Do we ever learn?  It appears not.  Penalty taking is not a science, it is a lottery.  Or is it?  We have been negligent in viewing such competitions with a serious head and our lack of preparation has been our undoing.  During the past few years I have painfully seen my beloved West Ham lose a cup final on penalties, Bayern Munich, Manchester United and AC Milan win the Champions League on penalties yet there still seems to be little interest in preparing for the event.

England lose in Germany again

Glenn Hoddle, England manager in 1998 in France freely admitted the team had not practised penalties, and even went as far to say that during extra time in the game versus Argentina he had no idea who his five penalty takers would be.  In Lisbon in 2004, Sven put his faith in two players who would ultimately not finish the quarter final game with Portugal and thus be unable to take a spot kick.  Two years later and Rooney’s sending off meant that Jamie Carragher, a substitute and a player who had never taken a penalty in a game before took one, and missed.

“Penalties are a lottery,” Capello said. “I remember some very important players didn’t take penalties because they didn’t feel sure they would score.

“For this reason, with penalties, when the time comes and you have to choose who should take them, you ask and the players say ‘no, please’ and that can even be the very best players.”

“I prefer to choose the players who want to take penalties and I always train with penalties in my mind.

“I know who the best players are to take them, already. I know. But the pressure at the moment you have to take the penalty is different.

“During training, the goal is big and the keeper is small. But when you have to score a penalty to win the World Cup, the goal is little and the keeper is big. It is difficult to score under that pressure.”

Lehmann's saves again against Argentina

But are they a lottery as Capello says?  In the quarter final between Germany and Argentina played just 24 hours before England’s defeat, Jens Lehmann was seen between kicks studying a bit of paper that he kept in his sock.  It certainly wasn’t a prayer, or a good luck poem as some (probably ITV) commentators remarked on at the time, but a list of observations that he had compiled from watching the Argentinian players take penalties before.

  • Crespo – long run up – to the right.  short run up to the left
  • Aimar – waits along time – left

Whilst he only saved two of the four he faced, he went the right way for all of them.  Interestingly enough, England’s success ration in winning penalty shoot outs is the lowest of all major nations.

  • Argentina – 73% win rate
  • Germany – 71%
  • Brazil – 64%
  • France – 50%
  • Italy – 33%
  • Netherlands – 20%
  • England – 17%

And in the last 20 years, who have won the major tournaments?  Brazil 5, Argentina 2, Germany 2, France 2,  Italy 1, Netherlands 1…and England???? zero.  But it is not all about scoring – we need someone who can save them as well and we are at least well positioned in this respect.  Our current first choice goal keeper is Robert Green, and interestingly enough he has the best penalty saving record in the Premier League with only 53% penalties he faced being scored in the past 5 years.

So it is not all about preparation then.  Why are some players more successful at taking penalties than others?  Let’s take four examples.

Matt Le Tissier – Scored 48 out of 49 spot kicks he took during his career.  The one he missed was saved, meaning that every single one was on target.  His technique was to hit the ball side-footed but with power.  He claimed that 90% hit the corner of the net, making them almost impossible to save.

The slip on your bum technique

Ray Stewart – When West Ham paid Dundee United £430,000 for this teenager in 1979 most people said “who?”.  But he soon became one of the most feared penalty takers in the land, netting 81 out of 86 during his career, including one in the last minute of injury time in the League Cup final at Wembley to take the game to a replay.  Stewart relied purely on power, using a principle that a keeper may get a hand to it but the power would take his hand into the net along with the ball.

Julian Dicks – In a similar vein to Stewart, the “Terminator”, Dicks blasted home over 90% of his spot kicks during his career, including the last goal scored in front of the Anfield Kop during his season at Liverpool.  In the 1995/96 season he scored 10 penalties, which is still a record for a defender in the Premier League.

Cristiano Ronaldo – The fancy dan of penalty taking, full of shimmies, dummies, delays and dinks.  He had an almost impeccable record for Manchester United for many years.  Things have gone a bit pear shaped since moving to Real Madrid as he has missed 40% of his spot kicks this season.

So when we get on the field in the quarter final/semi final in South Africa, please make sure Mr Capello that you know your penalty takers, that we have practised and that our goal keeper is fully prepared.  Another four years of hurt is nothing compared to the four days of over reaction from our media!

The wrong way to take a “clever” penalty.

And the right way…

For more details on penalty kicks, go to Penalty Shootouts website.